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Published: Tuesday, 5/13/2008

Classic foods of New Orleans: Cuisine brings Cajun and Creole to the plate

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

NEW ORLEANS Louisiana cuisine has a host of classic foods, many of which are Cajun and Creole dishes. A visitor can enjoy an etouffee, a fricassee, or a jambalaya. When it comes to fried pastries such as a beignet or a cala, take your pick.

If it s a one-pot meal, chances are it s Cajun, says Chef John Folse, who first made his name with Lafitte s Landing Restaurant in 1978 in Donaldsonville. (The restaurant spawned food manufacturing companies, a Louisiana Public Broadcasting TV series, and cookbooks.)

Cajuns emigrated from France to Nova Scotia in 1620. They were expelled from the region in 1750 when the English took control of that part of Canada. Many of them migrated to Louisiana, which had been a French possession, but which was then a Spanish land. They settled in swamp areas, says Chef Folse, who is well-versed in culinary history. The cuisine was different than Nova Scotia, which had simpler flavors.

There was hunting of game, and the Spanish brought spices. Smoked meats of the Germans added new flavors. The cuisine was never intended to be spicy, but it was well-seasoned, said Mr. Folse, who has been called one of the icons of New Orleans food, along with the Brennan family of restauranteurs, K Paul Prudhomme, and Leah Chase.

For the Cajun cook, rice was new, he says. Rice was not part of Nova Scotia.

Creole cooking was born of native soil with the intermarriage of different cultures, says Chef Folse. By his definition, There are seven significant nations: Native American, French, Spanish, German, Africans, English, and Italians. It was an intermingling of culture, ingredients, and techniques that intertwined to truly deserve the word Creole. It included the regional ingredients of Louisiana and the culinary techniques of the seven significant nations.

For example, jambalaya is a Creole dish with German influences of sausage created when cooks wanted to make a Spanish paella, he says. Gumbo is a new Creole soup. Unlike the bouillabaisse of the Mediterranean, the Creoles don t have saffron, but they did have okra from the Africans, and file from the Native Americans.

(File is a powder manufactured by the remaining tribe of the Choctaw Indians in Louisiana from the young and tender leaves of the sassafras, according to The Picayune s Creole Cook Book,1901).

A beignet is a traditional New Orleans yeast pastry deep-fried and served hot with a dusting of powdered sugar. The word cala comes from an African word for rice .

This deep-fried pastry is made with rice, yeast, sugar, and spices and when fried, is sprinkled with powdered sugar. It s a treasured recipe that Poppy Tooker of Slow Food New Orleans demonstrated with her husband Nicky Mouledoux at a food reception at Riverwalk in April.

A Cajun fricassee is a rich roux-based stew made with chicken, pork, game, or seafood that s served over rice, according to Sandra Day, food writer and editor based in Lafayette, La. It s a dish that s served on many plate lunches in Cajun Country. Ms. Day is working on a book about plate lunches in Cajun Country.

Most cultures such as the French and German created braised dishes, says Chef Folse. They stewed or braised in an aromatic liquid. The Cajuns had wild game dishes cooked into simple stews and braised with onion, garlic gravy with wild herbs and spices such as a leg of venison.

Red beans and rice was served on Monday, when it was wash day and there was no time to cook anything else but a slow pot of red beans. Red beans is an important of Cajun cooking. The Cajuns adopted rice quickly.

There s seafood, alligator, frog legs, fried fish and stewing fish. But crawfish is relatively new to Louisiana cooking, says the chef. Until the Depression, there was no need of catching crawfish. They were challenging, difficult to catch, and time-consuming. Prior to World War II and into the late 1940s, there were few crawfish boils. There was no ice. They were hard to bring out of the swamp. You needed refrigeration. A crawfish boil is more of a social event like the pig roast.

In the world of gumbo, the holy trinity of ingredients is onion, green bell pepper, and celery. These classic Creole seasonings are just as likely to be used perhaps with garlic on a freshly caught fish topped with a tomato sauce.

The food evolved to a spicier taste. Condiment sauces have affected the heat of Cajun and Creole, he says. In 1868 Tabasco hits the table. But it s not until the 1890s 1900s that it gains a toe-hold in Louisiana. There are no supermarkets.

Today there are many condiments including those from different nations in which hot peppers are put in vinegar and served on dishes like red beans for a totally new flavor. There s such a melange of cultures, he says. Food slowly evolved to a spicier taste.

Creole and Cajun spice combinations have become standards at many spice companies.

Zatarain s Creole Seasoning ingredient list lists chili powder, cayenne, sugar, paprika, black pepper, and other ingredients.

Chef Johnny Clark, president of the Maumee Valley Chefs Association, sells Chef Johnny s line of commercial and retail seasonings including Southern Seafood Seasoning used for Johnny s Jambalaya, a great 45-minute dish that s a quick fix meal. If you don t like seafood, use sausage or chicken, he says.

There s paprika, garlic, onion, cayenne, pepper, and others for a traditional Cajun flavor. The seasoning is great on any kind of fish, salads, and on chicken breasts, he says. In the 1990s, he lived in Pass Christian, Miss. and was executive chef/general manager of the Great Southern Club in Gulfport, Miss.

Cajun seasoning always has red and/or black pepper and salt in mixes, says Ms. Day. I see a mix of both. Every little grocery store and meat market in Cajun Country can make their own. Almost all have salt in them.

Cajun food should be well seasoned. Each bite is full of flavor. Sauce piquant should be hot. Crawfish is pretty peppered. You still feel a little pepper on the tongue. We cut pockets in our meat, chicken, and pork roasts and stuff it with Cajun or Creole seasoning. The spice permeates every bite.

Chef John Folse & Co. manufacturing division includes entrees, vegetables, soups, sauces, dry mixes, and specialty products for foodservice distribution, retail sales and national restaurant chains. Among the diverse line-up products are Bulgarian Style Yogurt from Bittersweet Plantation Dairy and Leah Chase s Gumbo Z Herbes (Gumbo with Beef, Ham & Sausage).

One hundred percent of the proceeds and profits go to her restaurant, says Mr. Folse about the 85-year-old owner of Dooky Chase restaurant which was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. She came to our (Research and Development) center and worked with me. Now the product is sold in stores such as Albertson s and Whole Foods and Leah uses it for events.

Chef Folse prepared a turducken for the Louisiana Heritage Reception held at the International Association of Culinary Professionals in April. Turducken is a dish of partially deboned turkey stuffed with de-boned duck which is stuffed with de-boned chicken. The cavity of the chicken and the gaps between the birds are sometimes filled with different stuffings. The tradition of stuffing deboned birds inside each other comes from Europe and the Middle Ages and even as far back as the Roman Empire, he says.

Turducken is now so popular in Louisiana that some people serve it in place of Thanksgiving Dinner. It has a strong rival in the Cajun fried turkey.

Kathie Smith is The Blade s food editor. Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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